Every Sunday in Christ the King Chapel at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, the mass is celebrated with all the pomp and ceremony that the traditions of the Catholic Church and the humble means of that small college allow—glittering vestments, billowing incense, a liberal helping of Latin, and numerous grave-faced altar servers. And music. Good heavens, the music! For four years I sat in the congregation of that chapel, and every Sunday I melted in my pew as the forty or so voices of the college’s choir broke into the sublime harmonies of the great polyphonists. Palestrina, Hassler, Byrd, Bach—they all made an appearance at one time or another.
I still vividly remember the Sunday when the choir ventured into uncharted territory, and during communion launched into the frighteningly difficult 8-part harmonies of Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria. By the end I was—quite literally—in tears. Afterwards I accosted one of the members of the choir in the cafeteria and demanded she tell me what that piece was. I didn’t have to say which—she knew. I then went off in search of a recording, but—alas!—all I could find was a disappointingly ponderous rendition by Chanticleer, the all-male choir out of San Francisco. Chanticleer’s recording dragged its feet, but under the direction of Dr. Kurt Poterack, Christendom’s choir had made it dance.
The members of the choir were always humbly self-deprecatory, reacting with unfeigned surprise and delight whenever I complimented them. “If you had been up in the choir loft,” they would always tell me, “you would have heard all the mistakes.” Well, that may be, but I was in the congregation. And though I sometimes did hear mistakes, they never marred the enjoyment of those Sunday masses, which were the highlight of my week.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Later, I was blessed to have fifteen members of the choir sing at my wedding mass. I asked them to do that Ave Maria, but without Dr. Poterack’s expert hand, they dared not tackle Biebl. But I still got Hassler’s Missa Secunda. And I will never forget the moments kneeling next to my bride after communion, when the choir sang an arrangement of the Lorica of St. Patrick that always reminds me a little of Allegri’s Miserere—a single, austere beam of melody that suddenly breaks into a spectrum of pure and utterly satisfying harmony. I still don’t know who the composer is. I have since acquired a copy of the score from one of my friends who was in the choir, and it is written out in hand, no composer named (perhaps it is Dr. Poterack himself?).
It may seem strange that during all this time I never once considered joining the choir. But, to me, what they did was a kind of magic, and I was no magician. It’s not that I’m musically ignorant. I played in the school band at both of my high schools (percussion), and I knew enough of the piano to impress your average layman. But I did not think I was a singer, and certainly not the kind of singer who could dream of touching Bach or Palestrina, whose music is as nearly other-worldly as music can be. Nor was I entirely mistaken. I have never had a very good voice. My range is limited and my voice is subject to cracking at the most inopportune moments. The tone, as well, is never quite reliable, changing from one day to the next.
But a few months after graduating from Christendom I moved to a small town about an hour and a half northeast of Toronto. My wife had landed a job teaching at a fledgling private school there, and it turned out that several people involved with the school were doing what Christendom’s choir did, albeit on a much smaller scale. Every week they convened for a few hours to practice polyphony, and every so often would venture into a choir loft somewhere in the diocese to sing for a mass. At some point they invited my wife—who has even less musical knowledge than myself—and I to join. We protested that we had neither the knowledge nor the talent. They persisted, insisting that we at least give it a try, arguing that after all they were just amateurs themselves. We didn’t believe them, but as we happened to like the choir members we had met, we decided that at the very least it would be fun.
And so one wintry Wednesday evening we arrived at the house of the de facto director of the small choir. We were late and as we walked in the door we were greeted—lo and behold!—with the rich tones of the Hassler mass which Christendom’s choir had so often sung. The effect of hearing it, however, was to reinforce my suspicion that I was getting in over my head. Nor was this feeling immediately dispelled. This choir had been singing together for several years, and had a handle on a moderate-sized repertoire. I, who had never once looked at a polyphonic score, grasped desperately to keep apace, and more often than not found myself floundering.
Where I first began to enjoy myself was when the choir began adding new material to the repertoire. This leveled the playing field. Together with the others I began piecing together these masterpieces note by note, and with them enjoyed the electric sensation when the music finally “clicked.” Best of all was when I was able to participate in the experience of bringing this music into its proper context. It was a very great day indeed when I was able to sing the same Lorica that had brought me to tears at my wedding at the mass before my first-born son’s baptism.
Sadly our little choir has since disbanded, a victim to the hectic schedules and increasing responsibilities of the members. But all was not in vain. Many are the masses which that choir transformed into a transcendent experience, imparting to the congregation something of the full beauty and weight of the mysteries occurring on the altar. And as for myself, I learned that while it may take a great composer to write great music, it does not necessarily take great singers to sing it. Even an amateur’s grasp of theory is sufficient to cobble together a passable performance of some of the easier polyphonic works, while even many of the imperfections of the individual voice are swallowed up in the collective voice of the choir. And then, of course, there’s no accounting for the value of good old-fashioned sweat-on-your-brows practice.
And so it was that I had the courage to stand last December in the midst of 100 black-clad men and women in the sanctuary of George St. United Church in Peterborough in a black suit I had borrowed at the last minute from a friend, and a black bowtie my wife had bought me at the last minute. The occasion was both the opening night of the Peterborough Singer’s annual Handel’s Messiah concert, and my very first concert singing with the semi-professional choir. Believe me when I say that I will never, ever forget the sensation of launching into that most magnificent of all choruses, Worthy is the Lamb that Was Slain, which comes just before the massive concluding Amen. As the organ shook the church, and as the choir gave it their all, I felt like I was floating a good two inches off the ground and as if I had never before in my life uttered so sincere and heartfelt a prayer. I do not think it is exaggeration to say that this first time singing the Messiah was literally a life-changing experience. I felt as if I had encountered both music, and the spirit of Christianity, more deeply than ever before.
It seems that an increasing number of people are noticing that sacred music has taken a major hit these past few decades. And many of them are beginning to clamor for a renaissance. Such a renaissance will not occur, however, without those who are willing, eager, and able to effect it. And so I am here to tell you that if I can sing polyphony, and even Handel’s great oratorio (albeit a little shakily), just about anybody with a basic grasp of music theory and the ability to hold a note, can. All it takes is a little effort, and regular practice.
If there is ever to be any such renaissance in sacred music, it will have to be spearheaded by ordinary people like me—unschooled in the niceties, but in love with the essence of sacred and classical music and what it can offer to the liturgy and the culture. Our little choir often bungled the music—often badly—but usually the congregation didn’t notice. If they did notice anything, it was generally that something uncommonly beautiful had happened in their church that day. Indeed, it is the amateur, and not the professional, who has the power to make or break culture, for culture is not what is done in our concert halls, but what is done in our schools, our churches, and our families. So, for God’s sake, get out there and make some music!